School reopening options

Pierce County Schools are scheduled to reopen August 10 for the 2020-2021 school year, but there will be big changes in store and more may be on the way.

School superintendent Dara Bennett led the discussion for Pierce County’s “Path for Recovery” from COVID-19 (coronavirus) at the school board’s monthly work session last Tuesday morning. The meeting was moved up a week due to the Independence Day holiday.

Bennett also brought in Technology Director David Pittman, Federal Programs and Curriculum Director Yvette Newton, Transportation Director Jason Long, School Nutrition Director Becky Swain and Maintenance and Operations Director Harbin Farr to give an overview of how their respective departments will operate as the school system reopens following the five month shutdown forced by the pandemic.

“How we start may not be how we end up in the coming school year, but this represents a team effort to get the schools reopened,” said Bennett.

The superintendent explained the system will be following the three-phase guidelines recommended by the state department of education.

The three phases will determine how schools are operated based on the presence of coronavirus in the community.

In the first phase, which is low spread/no spread, schools will operate with a traditional schedule where all students and staff report to school everyday.

If there is minimal to moderate spread in the community a second phase will be implemented. In this phase, called the hybrid model, students will attend school in a staggered schedule.

The student populations will be divided in half with those with A-K last names attending two days per week and students with L-Z last names attending a different two days. The remaining school day will be used to deep clean and sanitize all school buildings.

Bennett also pointed out social distancing measures will be in place in all schools under both of the first two phases. Signage will be posted on how to limit the spread of the virus, and digital (no touch) temperature monitoring will be used to determine if students are fevered and may potentially be infected and need to go home.

Bennett also pointed out visitors admitted to campus will be limited. There will be no field trips and athletic events will follow guidelines set by the Georgia High School Association. Hand washing will be encouraged and hand sanitizer will be available for both phases.

In the third phase, which would be substantial spread in the community, in person classes will cease entirely as they did in March. Students and teachers would then go to a virtual/digital classroom model  or lesson packets will be sent home for at-home lessons. Schools would then be closed until the number of cases declines.

Bennett called on directors of the school systems’ departments to give details on their roles in the reopening effort.

• Technology: Pittman reported the school system would need to purchase technology devices such as Chromebooks (laptops) and hot spots in the event schools have to be closed. Pittman said 20-30 percent of students do not have access to technology such as Wifi, internet access, etc., at home. The devices would be purchased by the school system and would be assigned to students for check-out and check-in. The process would be handled through the media specialists at each school. (See related story.).

• Instruction: Newton will help to create and implement distance learning plans, provide training and support for Google classroom and online lessons in the event classes have to go digital. Teachers will also have to prepare and make plans to distribute instructional packets and make arrangements to get them to and from students.

• Maintenance and operations: Farr said the system will provide all necessary cleaning and disinfectant supplies to help sanitize all facilities and reduce the spread of disease.

Farr said the system will follow Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Georgia Department of Public Health guidelines. Buildings will undergo daily cleanings including wiping down desks, chairs, doorknobs, common areas, restrooms and public areas. Heating and air filters will be equipped with high quality filters designed to remove disease microbes. Bennett pointed out there has been lots of discussion about what to do about water fountains, since they would be high risk areas. Water will be made available for student consumption from paper cups. In the event of positive tests in the school system, buildings may be closed for deep cleaning.

• Transportation: Long said all bus drivers will clean their areas and handrails, disinfect after each route and provide hand sanitizer for students. They will also wear protective masks. Air conditioning units on the buses will also be changed frequently. Long noted buses may be delayed by the additional cleaning on their secondary routes.

• School nutrition: Swain reported all nutrition staff will be screened as they report to work each day. Work stations will be staggered to insure social distancing. Employees suspected of having the virus or having been in contact with someone with the virus will have to self-isolate for 10 days and must be fever free for 3 days without the use of medication before returning to work. All school nutrition employees will wear masks and hand washing frequency will be increased.

In the event of closure, Swain said the school nutrition department would oversee meal deliveries.